Fifteen years ago, in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic, a medical researcher named Michel Chrétien and his long-time collaborator Majambu Mbikay hatched a hypothesis in their Montreal laboratory. A global cohort of scientists was waking up to the reality of a new generation of infections like SARS. Chrétien and Mbikay, researchers at the Clinical Research Institute of Montreal (IRCM), believed a derivative of quercetin, a plant compound known to help lower cholesterol, was a “broad spectrum” antiviral drug that could fight a range of viruses. When an Ebola outbreak struck West Africa in 2014, the two scientists teamed up with the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg to test quercetin’s effectiveness on mice infected with Ebola—and found it remarkably effective. They also think it could work against the Zika virus. The medication still needs to undergo clinical trials. But late last year, when a new global health crisis erupted in Wuhan, China, Chrétien and his team once again got to work. Their research suggests the drug may work on COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.
Michel Chrétien refuses to retire. The 84-year-old physician and medical researcher was, for a time, the world’s seventh most cited scientist, and his name runs atop more than 600 publications. His achievements rival those of his older brother Jean—an impressive claim given that particular sibling served as prime minister of Canada for a decade. Michel has almost certainly saved more lives.
It did not take long for his team’s idea to move to the realm of practice. While studying biochemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, Chrétien had trained with a Chinese researcher, Dr. C.H. Li, an enduring connection that saw Chrétien visit China in 1979, and then seven times more over the years. Chrétien was an honorary professor at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College. In 1984, when he became president of the IRCM, he trained emerging scientists from China. One of those youngsters was Chen Zhu, a molecular biologist who eventually entered politics and served as China’s minister of health from 2007 until 2013. When the novel coronavirus outbreak exploded in January, Chrétien contacted Zhu with an offer: “Can we help?”
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Zhu went to officials at the highest levels of the National Health Commission, the government agency managing the crisis. Word came back to Chrétien and his team in mid-February. Chrétien’s team was invited to start clinical trials in China as soon as possible. The plan: send samples of quercetin to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan. Canadian and Chinese scientists would collaborate equally on the trials, which would include about 1,000 test patients. Chrétien and Mbikay plan to join colleagues from the non-profit International Consortium on Antivirals—which Chrétien co-founded with Jeremy Carver in 2004 as a response to the SARS epidemic—in manning a 24-7 communications centre as soon as clinical trials begin.
A cure, if it works, would be readily available: a Swiss manufacturer, Quercegen Pharmaceuticals, can rapidly produce doses of the drug in the hundreds of thousands. Next, Chrétien needs the funding to start the trials in Wuhan. His team spent weeks pursuing senior officials at Global Affairs Canada, and then Health Canada. There’s no time to waste, says Chrétien. “I’ve been doing science all my life. I’ve stumbled on things my entire career, and this is probably the most urgent one I’ve been confronted with,” he says.
Quercetin isn’t the only possible treatment for COVID-19; dozens of other clinical trials are under way in China. Most prominent among the drugs being tested is remdesivir, produced by a U.S. company. But quercetin’s price may in part set it apart; based on a compound found commonly in onions and grapes, it costs less than $2 a day, according to Chrétien, compared to the $1,000-a-day of some antivirals. It’s a serious potential leap in finding an affordable treatment for the deadly coronavirus strain; if it works, it could save thousands of lives.
For Canada, the drug may have serious ancillary benefits—an off-label use, if you will. It may be a dark-horse remedy for the plight of two Canadians who have been languishing in a Chinese prison for 14 months. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, a diplomat and a businessman respectively, have now been imprisoned for well over 400 days—one is now on the outskirts of Beijing, the other near the North Korean border—with no charges against them, no evidence offered that they have broken any laws. They spent months in solitary confinement with no hint of daylight. They have not been afforded the opportunity to see their families (though they have had access to lawyers in recent months, the Globe and Mail reported and Maclean’s confirmed through a source). The Canadian Press reported that Kovrig was recently allowed to speak to his father, who was ill, and both of the Michaels were “provided better food” in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. But they remain behind bars, effectively kidnapped by China.
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Chrétien and his team must know their potential discovery comes at a critical moment in Canada-China relations. After the RCMP arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver in December 2018 on a U.S. extradition warrant, China retaliated less than two weeks later with the arbitrary detention of Kovrig and Spavor. A diplomatic deep freeze set in, marking a new low in bilateral relations. Canada’s gentle pressure campaign to free the two Michaels has led nowhere.
The Michaels’ fates have taken on added resonance with a difficult decision facing the federal government: should Huawei, a global telecom giant with strong ties to the Chinese state, be allowed to build part of Canada’s emerging 5G network? On top of being labelled a national security threat by Western spy chiefs, the company has been under investigation in the U.S. for years, accused of breaking sanctions against Iran—and it was recently charged in the U.S. with racketeering and conspiring to steal trade secrets. Would a decision to give Huawei the green light—or a decision to bar it from being involved—have any bearing on the Michaels’ freedom? Pundits and insiders have debated those questions for months as diplomats work behind closed doors.
Now, as China faces a public-health disaster that has exploded into a global pandemic, comes the possibility of a political game changer. Trials for the coronavirus drug developed in Montreal are a truly collaborative project between the two countries, with funding from Canadian sources fuelling lab work undertaken by Chinese scientists. The Lazaridis Family Foundation has already contributed $1 million to the cause, enough to start clinical trials. The initiative could contribute to a shift in frosty relations that can only help the Michaels—although Chrétien, either very much the scientist or displaying a political finesse that rivals his sibling’s, leaves it at touting the benefits of academic freedom. “Basic science is worth doing for the sake of doing it, not knowing what the results will be in the short term or medium term,” he says. “Long-term returns can be big.”
Public-health diplomacy is only the latest idea floated as a possible lever in the difficult quest to free the Michaels. Kovrig, an ex-diplomat on leave in China, and Spavor, an entrepreneur known for close ties to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (an ally of China), were arrested by Chinese authorities on Dec. 10, 2018. Their detentions are widely seen as leverage in, or punishment for, Canada’s arrest of Meng as she travelled through Vancouver’s international airport. Extradition proceedings commenced days later and are ongoing. Conditions of Meng’s release confine her, mostly, to her multi-million-dollar residence, though she’s allowed to move about the city before a nightly curfew. Kovrig and Spavor, by contrast, have been detained in horrid conditions where they have been interrogated for hours on end and forced to live in cells where the lights were never turned off. At one point, Kovrig’s guards confiscated his glasses and replaced the metal frames with plastic.
The Michaels are only the latest pawns in a tactic central to Chinese foreign policy in the Xi Jinping era. China experts around the world often refer to it as “hostage diplomacy”—any country that crosses China inadvertently risks seeing its own people nabbed from the streets and locked away, often without any formal arrest or charge, for months or years at a time.
Peter Humphrey knows that reality better than most. Humphrey, a fraud investigator based in Shanghai, was in the middle of a bribery investigation on behalf of GlaxoSmithKline in 2013 when he and his wife, Yu Yingzeng, were detained and charged with “illegally acquiring personal information.” He was crammed into a crowded cell with no access to hot water and a hole in the floor for a toilet. The couple were eventually convicted and only released in 2015, after GlaxoSmithKline’s China operation was found guilty of bribery by the Chinese and paid a hefty fine.
The Michaels’ case must also sound familiar to Kevin and Julia Garratt, two Canadian missionaries who ran a coffee house popular with expats in the city of Dandong, across the Yalu River from North Korea. They were hauled into detention centres in 2014—Kevin was in the same facility as Spavor—and faced typically harsh treatment. It became clear the Garratts were no more than bargaining chips for the Chinese. U.S. authorities had called for the extradition of Su Bin, a Chinese national living in Canada, on espionage charges; China needed leverage. Julia was released in 2015; Kevin was held another year.
Kovrig and Spavor’s prospects for freedom might soon become hazier, cautions Guy Saint-Jacques, the former Canadian ambassador to China, who gained valuable experience during the Garratts’ imprisonment. He notes that Chinese prosecutors could press charges any day now, setting in motion a legal process that could further stymie Canadian efforts, and draw out their detention for years.
The Michaels, like other detainees in Chinese prisons, are hapless victims caught in political crossfire. Canada is itself stuck in the middle of an unrelenting geopolitical fight between China and the U.S., two superpowers with a grudge who waged an extended, mutually painful trade war.
Since the arrest of the Michaels, two schools of thought have emerged, prescribing starkly different solutions to that dilemma, as well as the underlying question of how to engage with China.
One camp urges a détente, perhaps even a quid pro quo with the Chinese. Eddie Goldenberg, a former chief of staff to Jean Chrétien, reflected the view of many Liberals of his era when he suggested a so-called prisoner exchange: Meng for the Michaels. John McCallum, a Chrétien-era cabinet minister and the ambassador to China in 2018, was sacked for going against his government and advocating for such a trade. Jean Chrétien himself offered last year to go to China on Canada’s behalf to negotiate the Michaels’ release; the Globe and Mail reported that he had discussed the idea of Canada’s justice minister intervening to stop Meng’s extradition.
Other voices disagree with any direct swap, but urge multilateral diplomacy—a pressure campaign conducted largely behind closed doors, with plenty of constructive dialogue. Dialogue of any sort is overdue. Having stumbled into a fight it wasn’t prepared for—some suggest Canada should have at least discreetly warned Meng about flying to Vancouver, or alerted Beijing to the arrest through diplomatic channels—Ottawa took a hands-off approach to the Michaels’ case. There were statements of support from allies, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but Canadian and Chinese foreign ministers did not meet for eight months after the arrest.
In contrast, after the Iranian military shot down Flight 752 in January, Canada convened a five-nation International Coordination and Response Group to pressure the Iranians to force “accountability, transparency and justice” for the victims’ families. Could this kind of early leadership, some critics ask, have paved the way to a better outcome for the Michaels?
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The other camp insists Beijing respects only power and force, and Canada must create leverage where it has none. This camp sees Xi Jinping, the bullish president of China, as a geopolitically dangerous leader who has shown cruelty in his regime’s treatment of its own citizens, as well as foreign nationals. It argues Western nations ought to collectively punish China for flouting the rule of law.
“What we have seen is an overt act of hostage-taking for the detention of Meng Wanzhou,” says Peter Humphrey, now an associate in research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Canada could intervene politically to send Meng home. But, he says, “Canada is a bulwark for the rule of law as we believe in it in a democratic society, and it can’t do that.” And the Meng case is only a symptom. “China’s waging a war,” he says, “not with tanks and aircraft carriers and bombers yet, but it’s waging a war against the rest of the world for control and dominance.”
Gordon Chang, a prominent China critic and author of the 2001 book The Coming Collapse of China, explains the authoritarian state’s view of Western rule of law in stark terms: “There is no rule of law in China.” He told Maclean’s Canada shouldn’t compromise its Western values. “It may be the outcome that the two [Michaels] stay in detention indefinitely. That’s a horrible situation,” he says. But paying a ransom to hostage takers, in essence, may only encourage what Chang calls a “belligerent, hostile” state.
Both he and Humphrey insist that Canada has more leverage than it appears. “You’ve got to be a lot more robust in dealing with Chinese people inside Canada who are actually violating the law,” says Humphrey, claiming agents of the state have infiltrated Canadian government at the provincial and federal level. “Stop pussy-footing around with those people. You know they’re there.” Indeed, a redacted version of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians’ 2019 annual report named China as a state that “engages in foreign interference” at all levels of government—and on university campuses. “While the majority of elected and appointed officials conduct their business with genuine integrity, some are wittingly or unwittingly subject to foreign interference activities, jeopardizing the integrity of Canada’s system of government,” reads the report.
Canada has other levers it’s not using, says Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a longtime senior public servant who served on the Canada-China Joint Committee on Science and Technology for seven years and collaborated with her Chinese counterparts for much of her career. McCuaig-Johnston noted in a paper for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute last November that she has “invested decades of personal effort” in Canada-China relations and that it “pained” her to speak out publicly. But she believes Ottawa needs to reset its relationship with Beijing. We shouldn’t be reluctant to link trade and economic policy to its mission to free the Michaels, she writes; China did when it banned Canadian pork and canola imports.
Symbolic gestures could have an effect, too, in her view. Federal officials could tell Chinese athletes training in Canada for the 2022 Olympics to go home. They could return the Calgary Zoo’s cuddly pandas to China years ahead of their scheduled 2023 departure. They could freeze Chinese buyers out of Canada’s real estate market—on the basis of citizenship, not ethnicity—and consider withdrawal from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Beijing-based initiative.
“I recognize that there could be retribution by Beijing for such actions,” wrote McCuaig-Johnston. “But they may be required to convey to China that its actions have gone too far and it should show more respect to its partner of almost 50 years. Loss of face is keenly felt in China.”
It’s easy to find support for a harsher view of China policy in President Xi Jinping’s own words. “For those that deter China’s realization of a great national rejuvenation,” Xi said last September, “we will wage a determined struggle against them as long as they are there. And we must win the struggle.”
In the fall of 2018, Canada’s spy chief, speaking at an international cybersecurity workshop in Ottawa, made a startling declaration. David Vigneault, Canadian Security Intelligence Service director, told the audience that China’s ambition for cyberspying was the biggest threat facing Western democracies. The National Post unearthed copies of his speech, which specifically warned that China’s foreign investment in fifth-generation, or 5G, networks introduced “new espionage and disruption risks.” He’s not alone in believing that. One critical piece of the China-U.S. fight is Huawei, which Western intelligence officials have long warned poses a threat to national security.
With all this in the background, the federal government faces the dilemma of whether to permit wireless carriers to use Huawei hardware in its 5G networks. The Chinese tech giant is one of the three leading global providers, along with Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia, of this next leap forward in data speeds and capabilities, and the coming age of driverless vehicles, “the internet of things” and high-definition movies downloading to your phone in the time it takes you to read this sentence.
U.S. officials have expressed stern worries about letting Huawei become part of the new tech infrastructure. This cyberthreat is one of those preciously rare things on which Republicans and Democrats can all agree. The “Huawei Trojan Horse” could let China’s intelligence services tap straight into Canadians’ data core, Trump national security adviser Robert O’Brien warned last fall at a Halifax security forum. Huawei professes independence from the authoritarian state, but Chinese law can now compel corporations to assist with intelligence operations.
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Letting Huawei help build a 5G network could lead the United States to restrict intelligence sharing, some lawmakers have warned—a threat lost on few officials in Canada, a fellow country in the Five Eyes intelligence group. So Canada’s decision on Huawei’s involvement in its 5G infrastructure would enrage either the Chinese or the Americans, depending on the outcome.
The tech firm has already put down roots in Canada since arriving in Ottawa in 2008. Canadians may be most familiar with the Chinese telecom’s sponsorship of hockey on Sportsnet, but most of the company’s funds are tied to research and development. Huawei Canada says it invests millions annually in Canadian universities. Alykhan Velshi, vice-president of corporate affairs at Huawei Canada, says his company has already spent 12 years building the telecom sector north of the border. “We employ more than 1,200 Canadians,” he says. “Working with our Canadian partners, we helped to build the 4G LTE and 3G wireless networks that people rely on today across the country.”
The company’s current move to deepen those roots comes in part as a response to its shunning by top U.S. research universities. Huawei poured millions into American schools over the past decade, but last year Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley, among others, cut ties amid pressure from Washington and a new federal law that bans recipients of federal funding from using Huawei equipment or infrastructure.
Huawei Canada insists it has, for years, worked collaboratively with Canada’s Communications Security Establishment, the federal electronic spy service. “We are in regular contact with the government and its security agencies,” says Velshi. “We have told them repeatedly that when it comes to 5G network security, we are willing to undergo any test and meet any benchmarks to assure them of Huawei’s commitment to security and privacy protection.”
Chinese officials had a somewhat less conciliatory message in January 2019, after the detention of Spavor and Kovrig. “If the Canadian government does ban Huawei from participating in the 5G network,” Lu Shaye, then ambassador to Canada told reporters, “then as for what kind of repercussions there will be, I am not sure. But I believe there will be repercussions.”
In December, another China envoy, German ambassador Wu Ken, dropped hints as to Beijing’s thinking—he reminded a Berlin business crowd of the seven million German cars China buys annually, and mused about declaring them not safe for protectionist reasons. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been reluctant to bar Huawei for exactly this type of trade worry. Meanwhile, Australia and Japan have kept major Chinese firms from 5G, heeding warnings from intelligence brass above other considerations.
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China hasn’t linked 5G to the fate of the Michaels in any respect—“thank goodness,” says Paul Evans, a professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia. But Beijing is likely watching carefully which sides countries pick in this East-West battle for technological and industrial dominance. “If we line up with the Americans fully on the Huawei decision and the techno-nationalist competition, it is hard seeing that working well for us striking bargains with China on the hostages,” Evans says.
The pervasive opinion in Chinese circles is that Canada is a “cat’s paw” of the United States—a subordinate partner that blindly follows its dictates, says Wesley Wark, a national security expert and visiting professor at the University of Ottawa’s public management centre. The 5G dilemma could be a chance for Canada to show its sovereign decision-making abilities, he says. Wark stresses he doesn’t think Ottawa should factor its prisoner dilemma into its 5G decision. But if it can show China, by act or rhetoric, that it was deciding free of U.S. influence, “it would be wonderful if this created an opening for the Chinese to rethink detention of the two Michaels,” he says.
Wark believes the United Kingdom may have given Canada a path forward with a compromise decision that seems to have mollified China (though not the United States). The U.K. is singling out Huawei as a “high-risk vendor” that cannot build its core 5G system or any equipment around critical government infrastructure, but can supply periphery hardware—gear like antennas that merely transmit data between users and the secure core. This route may prove appealing to Canada, as telecommunications majors Telus and Bell have both said they’ll seek different providers for their 5G cores, but wish to be able to incorporate Huawei gear elsewhere in the network.
A more co-operative stance on Huawei than the United States wants may help improve atmospherics between China and Canada, says Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. “Even the answer that China would most like—Huawei, fine, fire away—will not get the Michaels out tomorrow, I’m afraid,” he says. “But a nuanced decision will help create the environment that might make it somewhat easier to work toward a solution.”
Into this stew comes a coronavirus, which has ravaged China, killed thousands and sickened tens of thousands more, and is hitting the country where it hurts. “The Chinese economy right now is contracting,” says Gordon Chang, who points to lower crude oil demand, shuttered factories and container ships leaving ports far below capacity.
Canada faces obvious public-health risks as COVID-19 spreads around the world. Still, while Australia and the U.S. reacted to the outbreak by banning travel from China, Canada didn’t impose those restrictions on travellers, and instead sent assistance in the form of medical equipment—a gesture that didn’t go unnoticed in Beijing. On Feb. 12, the ailing superpower offered an olive branch from the podium of foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. “Our heartfelt thanks go to Canada for its support and assistance in China’s fight against the epidemic,” Geng said. “We commend the statement from the Canadian health minister [Patty Hajdu], which reflects Canada’s science-based and rational judgment.” The doctor leading a World Health Organization team of experts in China also happens to be a Canadian epidemiologist, Bruce Aylward.
The Canadians have responded in kind. François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s foreign minister, has spoken with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, twice already in 2020. At the Munich Security Conference in February, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau softened his own language as he talked about Canadian medical assistance. “Just because you have a serious disagreement on an issue that may be extremely important to you and to Canadians, it can’t prevent you from continuing to talk and try to solve other things at the same time,” Trudeau said in Germany. “There are far too many aspects to global relationships to not try and engage in a constructive way.” Champagne used similar language weeks later, during a foreign policy speech to a Montreal audience.
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The new warmth from China, a marked difference from previous condemnations of Canada’s conduct in the harshest terms, may signal the beginning of a new chapter. But it may have limited value when it comes to freeing the Michaels. Another former ambassador, David Mulroney, told the Canadian Press that goodwill isn’t enough. Chang would agree; he says nothing but Meng’s release will placate the Chinese. “Canadians need to stop thinking like they think when they try to understand China, and think about the way the Chinese think,” he says. “Lives do not matter to Xi Jinping.”
What options remain for the Michaels’ case, then, short of sending back pandas and barring Chinese cargo planes from Canadian airspace—as University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran has suggested in Maclean’s? High-level official engagement surely registers, even if it doesn’t on its own persuade. Canada’s new ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, whose last job was as managing director of global consulting giant McKinsey & Co., told a parliamentary committee in February about the visceral anger in the room during his first meeting with Chinese officials. It was “probably one of the most unpleasant conversations I have ever had,” he said.
But he has said freeing Kovrig and Spavor is his top priority, and sent that message by breaking a subtle diplomatic tradition. Typically, consular officials, not ambassadors, visit imprisoned foreign nationals. When the Garratts were unlawfully detained, it wasn’t then-ambassador Saint-Jacques who checked up on them. But Barton took on that task himself, hoping it communicated his personal commitment to the Michaels in no uncertain terms.
Chinese self-interest can be a useful force. Last November, China ended a five-month ban on Canadian pork and beef, instituted ostensibly because of alleged inspection certificate forgeries and prohibited additives. But the change of heart may be chalked up to naked national interest more than bilateral chess: China was running low on meat, thanks to African swine fever’s massive toll on Chinese hog farms. (Chinese ports have remained shut to Canadian canola since March, also for safety reasons Canada says are unsubstantiated.)
And then there is the act of god, even an unwelcome one. In Peter Humphrey’s case, ill health—he fell ill with cancer while in prison—helped to free him. The Garratts, on the other hand, scored a stroke of good luck when Su Bin turned himself in, suggests Guy Saint-Jacques, the former Canadian ambassador, a turn no Canadian official could have engineered. Su’s guilty plea helped the U.S. government acquire evidence of government-backed corporate espionage, and the Chinese backed down.
Could Michel Chrétien’s drug offer a ray of hope on all three fronts? A high-level Chinese-Canadian partnership on clinical trials to treat the coronavirus, one relying on long-standing research connections, could help smooth relations between the countries. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Canada’s federal funding agency for health research, will shovel more than $300 million into rapid coronavirus research; the quercetin proposal for trials didn’t qualify, but the Lazaridis Family Foundation funding is a start—and Chrétien’s team still hopes for more federal assistance.
In a gesture consistent with Beijing’s general negotiating style, China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, threw cold water on public-health diplomacy as a panacea. He told a defence and security conference in Ottawa on March 4 that Canada’s robust efforts to fight COVID-19 are “appreciated” and “good,” but not sufficient to repair the broader relationship. “You know the outstanding issue for the bilateral relationship,” Cong told journalists who had pressed him for a response. He didn’t have to say Meng’s name.
But if the drug proves effective for COVID-19, it could help China save face and, most importantly, lives. Even if it doesn’t, a collaborative project like it may help China’s image as a global citizen. Saint-Jacques, who sits on the board of directors of the ICRM Foundation that raises money for medical research, said such a breakthrough “may help to switch the channel.” He speculates that Global Affairs Canada could at least parlay that goodwill into bail for Kovrig and Spavor, who could take up temporary residence at the Canadian embassy in Beijing as they await trial. The best outcome, of course, in a country like China, would be full release with no trial. For the Michaels’ interminable detention to end that way, ailing Canada-China relations might need a medical miracle.